Northern Thailand chokes under severe smog as wildfires rage

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Northern Thailand chokes under severe smog as wildfires rage Staffers at the Pang Tong Forest Fire Control Station battle a wildfire in Mae Hong Son province, Thailand, March 30, 2024.
Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation

Massive wildfires raging across northern Thailand have created a severe smog crisis as air quality readings in Chiang Mai province exceeded hazardous levels for more than two consecutive weeks, officials warned Monday.

Nearly 1,000 hotspots have been detected across the region by satellite monitoring while unseasonably high temperatures and drought conditions fuel the uncontrolled blazes, which mostly started because of agricultural burning.

“Choking smog clouds from the fires have enveloped multiple provinces, with Chiang Mai’s haze spreading to Lampang, Lamphun and beyond. The wildfires are forecast to continue raging for over 10 more days, exacerbating the region’s hazardous air pollution levels,” environmental scholar Jain Charnnarong told BenarNews.

From Jan. 1 to March 29, a total of 3,748 wildfire hotspots have been recorded on 27,000 acres of forest land, according to the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA).

The hardest-hit provinces are Chiang Mai, where about 39,500 acres have burned, and Mae Hong Son, where 10,500 acres burned. 

On Monday, GISTDA announced that Thailand had detected a total of 1,864 hotspots across the country, with 952 hotspots identified in the northern region alone, based on March 28 satellite data.

“The wildfire in the Mae Sariang district of Mae Hong Son province, which started on March 24 has damaged over 26,600 rai (about 10,644 acres),” said Likhit Waiprom, chief of the Salawin National Park. 

The crisis has resulted in hazardous air pollution levels across the region. The Pollution Control Department’s Air Pollution Solution Communication Center warned that most of the northern region had dust levels exceeding the standard 37.5 micrograms/cubic meter, measuring between 42.4 and 161.9. 

“The highest dust concentration was recorded in Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai province, at 161.9 micrograms/cubic meter,” the center stated, advising the public, especially those in critical areas, to reduce outdoor activities and use protective equipment such as masks. 

01 TH-fires2.jpg
A firefighting helicopter transports water to combat forest fires amid heavy air pollution at the Mae Ngat Somboon Chon Dam, in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai, March 16, 2024. [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

Chatchawan Thongdeelert, a member of the Chiang Mai Breath Council, a local NGO, said all sectors should reduce wildfires.

“We have tried to disseminate knowledge about firefighting widely. Now we must mobilize equipment that will help our community in emergency situations, such as volunteer drone teams. Drones are being used to allow villagers to employ technology in both prevention and firefighting,” Chatchawan told BenarNews. 

Meanwhile, Onnicha Kimsang, a coffee shop owner in Chiang Mai, observed that the city’s temperatures and dust levels had significantly increased compared to the past decade. 

“We can only take care of ourselves by wearing masks and buying air purifiers. If local organizations could help us, we would like them to distribute air purifiers to every household and provide masks daily to everyone,” Onnicha told BenarNews. 

Conditions worsen

Experts have warned that the crisis could escalate as temperatures potentially reach a sweltering 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the coming weeks. Charnnarong, the environmental scholar, predicted the temperature could spike at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in a few years amid worsening drought conditions. 

Meanwhile, the government has taken steps to address the crisis – the cabinet approved a special budget of 272.65 million baht (U.S. $7.45 million) from the 2023 fiscal year expenditure to tackle the wildfire and smog issues in the north. 

Additionally, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the first reading of seven Clean Air Act drafts in January. A special commission has been established to prepare the legislation for approval. 

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has stated that addressing air pollution is a national emergency.

“Even if the pollution level is lower than last year at this time, we are still concerned and will find solutions to improve the livelihood of the people,” the prime minister said during a visit to Chiang Mai in March, Agence France-Presse reported.

Ruj Chuenban in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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